Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.
“Boys Of Summer” (The Wire, season 4, episode 1; originally aired 9/10/2006)
In which we meet four young men
Todd VanDerWerff: One of the reasons adolescence has been such an evergreen topic for TV shows is because everybody who lives to the age of 13 goes through at least some of it, and our experiences are all roughly similar. We all go through the same biological processes when we transition from child to adult, and that makes the topic one of those rare ones that’s truly universal, like falling in love or confronting death. There have been many, many, many great TV shows about what it’s like to be a teenager, and almost as many that were just awful.
If I were to pick a TV show about being a teenager that best exemplified my own experiences, it would probably be Friday Night Lights or Freaks And Geeks, both great shows, one of which speaks to my small-town upbringing and the other of which speaks to my social standing in high school. And, believe me, I was tempted by the choice of an episode from either. But I ended up going with “Boys Of Summer” for a bunch of reasons. For one thing, it’s a great episode of television and one that kicked off arguably the best season of what’s rapidly becoming the consensus choice for best TV series of all time. (I disagree, but I’m pleased such a challenging, uncompromising work holds the title nevertheless.) For another, it’s an episode filled with great, great set pieces, like Snoop buying the nail gun or Carcetti locking himself in a room to make the calls to raise the money his campaign needs. We could talk about any one of these storylines at length.
But I want to focus on the kids, both for the obvious reasons (that’s what this first series of articles is supposed to be about) and for the fact that if we’re looking for an adolescence that’s diametrically opposed to my own, this is a great depiction of that. Where I grew up relatively well-off and white in a small town, these kids are growing up poor African Americans in the inner city. If adolescence is truly universal—and not just an invention of modern times, as many sociologists would suggest—then I’d see something in common with Namond, Randy, Michael, and Dukie.
To be sure, I don’t recognize some aspects of their existence in my own life. The crisis of conscience Randy goes through after he realizes his role in Lex’s murder is like nothing I’ve ever gone through. Yet adolescence is a time for feeling things more intensely, and Randy’s absolute devastation at what he’s done is beautifully conveyed through Maestro Harrell’s wordless moment at the end of the episode, sitting on his stoop, watching a police car go by with its lights blazing, and wondering just what it is he’s been party to. The Wire’s genius always lay in just how thoroughly it could immerse you in people from all walks of life within its universe, and it’s still amazing to see just how quickly the show makes these four kids (and the school we’re about to see them attend) seem like the center of the universe.
The series had been away for a long, long time when this season began, and it used that time to attempt a minor reboot of its premise, shuffling McNulty and the police stories off to the side, in favor of Carcetti’s campaign, Prez’s new career, and these four kids. That it worked is tribute both to the show’s genius at introducing new characters and just how good these four young actors are. But it’s also tribute to the way the series uses the basic things we’ll all recognize from childhood to play up how these childhoods are at once different and similar to our own. Is there anyone who didn’t have a kid like Dukie in their lives growing up, a kid who’s picked on by everybody else but still has something to offer? And who can’t relate to that scene where the kids race through the alleys, chasing after each other in a game that turns more serious than it probably should have—or, at least, who can’t relate until those bricks start flying through the air?
There are things about adolescence that are universal, sure. The long, hazy summer days depicted in this episode reminded me acutely of what it was like to have August dwindling to a close and school on the horizon when I was the same age as these boys. But what makes this episode—and this season—so great is the way that David Simon and the series’ writers used the conceit of the universality of adolescence to make us all the more terrified of what might happen to these boys as they grew up. We already know the world they’ve been born into. We know what it does to people. Now, the series asks us to identify with boys we know are just going to be grist for the mill. It’s wrenching and heartbreaking, but it’s also brave. There’s a good reason this is one of the greatest seasons of TV ever produced.
What did you guys think? Am I off-base in thinking the show is using the universality of adolescence to make us even more worried about what we know must come?
Ryan McGee: Here’s where I connect with the titular boys, even if my own background separates myself from them by a distance immeasurable by geography: when Namond states that only he and his friends have the right to beat up on Dukie. It’s a moment familiar not only to those with friends, but also those with family. Both circles in my experience close ranks when an outside threat presents itself. It’s an instinctual response that goes well beyond class, race, and geography. We’ve seen plenty of recent discussion about the applicability of life presented in HBO-produce programming. Can one relate to Michael Lee, or Hannah Horvath, having not lived the lives they do? It’s a silly argument, since it’s never about the specific lives onscreen so much as the universal truths depicted.
What kills me about “The Boys of Summer” above all is the juxtaposition of the hope in this episode contrasted with the reality of how these four lives ultimately play out in the series. The episode epitaph—“Lambs to the slaughter here” —applies directly to Prez’s new position as math teacher. But it’s also about Michael, Namond, Randy, and Dukie, four young men behind the eight ball from minute one who nevertheless bear sparks of hope within each of them. If adolescence is about infinite possibility, then adulthood is about finite reality. We’re far from that place for those characters at this point in The Wire, but what unfolds after this is a tragedy we are unable to prevent from our privileged positions on the other side of the small screen.
Noel Murray: No, I think you’re right, Todd. The Wire always emphasized how working in the drug trade could be like any other pain-in-the-ass, 9-to-5 job, and at the start of this episode, we see some of the young soldiers engaging in a familiar summer ritual: asking the boss if they can knock off early and go have fun with their buddies. And to be honest, a lot of what these boys consider “fun” isn’t too far removed from what I used to do with my friends back when I lived in an apartment complex in suburban Tennessee. Our parents all worked, so we were left to our own devices all summer long, which meant a lot of climbing up dirt piles and smashing bottles and scouring construction sites for loose boards to play with. The difference is that I didn’t have to worry about other kids throwing bricks at me, or whether there’d be food in the fridge when I got home. One of the things I generally find attractive about crime stories is that lawbreakers seem to have the freedom to go places that I could never go; in most movies and TV shows about gangster types, they get to walk through any door. But that’s not really the case with these kids in The Wire. There are territories. So I can identify with the young ones’ yearning to goof off, and their fear that they’re only one wrong turn away from being in real trouble. It’s just that their trouble is more serious than any I had to contend with.
I do think also that there’s a “dog days of summer” quality that connects the boys’ story with Carcetti, and Prez, and McNulty. You mentioned Carcetti being stuck in his office, ordered by his handler to “hit his number,” fundraising-wise. This episode also has that terrific piece of cross-cutting between the bullshit teacher orientation session (“I Am Lovable And Capable!”) and the bullshit briefing on possible “soft targets” for terrorists in Baltimore. Good God, as a teenager I sat through plenty of those, having to put in the mandated hours of training before I could get handed a name-tag and a time-card. We’re all restless teens when some authority figure with an overhead projector starts yammering.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: Like Todd, the world of The Wire is pretty far from my adolescent experience. I grew up in a remote cow-country shit hole, and what I remember best about adolescence are feelings of boredom and frustration. It was a big chunk of time—seemingly endless, when I was living it—devoted to being someplace I didn’t want to be, surrounded by people I could barely tolerate, who made no secret of not wanting me on their planet. I was waiting to get through school so I could get the hell away and start my life. That’s the main way that the experience portrayed in this episode feels universal for me. These kids are bored shitless, and they’re in an environment where that can get them into real trouble. The scheme Randy concocts to pelt the rival gang with urine—like some of the shit he pulls later in the season, such as his filching hall passes so he can spend his time at school floating around, selling snacks to the other students—is the kind of thing a smart kid with real possibilities does with himself when he doesn’t have anything better to do with his brains. And if I’d been a drug dealer when I was in the eighth grade, I definitely would have gotten in trouble with my boss for reading on the job.
It’s worth pointing out that the four street kids at the center of this season were played by young professional actors, some of whom had done some fairly high-profile work before this show, and that there’s a real-life counterexample working right alongside them: Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, who was 26 when she made her acting debut in this episode, and who, as a teenage drug dealer, served time for second-degree murder when she was 14. Her presence here is a reminder that, in this world, you do have the opportunity to start your life before you’re legally an adult, though you may hit the ceiling very fast.
Donna Bowman: OK, pop culture blind spot confession time: I haven’t seen all of The Wire. I know, I know, and I’ll get to it much sooner having watched this episode, from a season I never reached in my previous aborted attempt at a watch-through. I’m just saying it so you can yell in unison at your Internet devices how I can’t possibly understand these kids without knowing their whole stories. Hey, not so loud. Use your inside voices.
So, from my position of ignorance, here’s what struck me about the kids in “Boys of Summer.” Adolescence is a constant shift, almost a palpable flip of the card, between being a child in the company of adults and being a peer in the company of kids. I remember my mom dropping me off at school and feeling my personality change as the car door slammed and the school door opened. If image-morphing technology had existed back then, that’s how I would have pictured it in my head. When Snoop buys the nail gun, she believes herself to be an adult and the salesman plays along even while being taken aback by her confident familiarity. Every day, the kids working on the corner have to deal with being the underlings of the corner lieutenants, who are just on the other side of puberty yet feel entitled to tsk tsk over the work ethic of kids these days. And when Randy walks home after the piss-bomb fight and meets his mom coming down the stoop, he transforms in front of our eyes into a boy that someone wants to keep out of danger—so much so that she’ll accept his half-truth explanation and congratulate herself that Randy isn’t a social outcast like that poor Dukie. How well I remember the combined fear and freedom of entering a world without adults (or one that at least had niches and alleyways where the adults weren’t watching), and the combined safety and resentment of re-entering the sphere of adult sway.
Meredith Blake: Here's where I, too, confess that I have not seen all of The Wire.I know, I know, I'm a disgrace to The A.V. Club and I should have my TV criticism license revoked. My only excuse is I didn't have HBO for most of the mid-aughts, when The Wire was at its heyday, and now the task of catching up hangs around my neck like an albatross. Hopefully, this summer I will come down with mono or something, so I can watch it all in one viewing. I might have a stroke from sitting for so long, but I’ll be the better for it.
Having said that, I agree with Donna's assertion that there’s plenty to be gleaned from this episode, even if, like me, you’re watching it without the knowledge of all the terrible things that lie in wait for these young boys. What I like so much about “Boys Of Summer” is how it avoids the easy traps of both sentimentality and cynicism. While Randy and his friends are convincingly childlike—they spend Namond’s hard-earned wages on ice cream—Simon doesn’t portray them as wide-eyed innocents, either. Similarly, the interactions with Dukie, the quintessential runt of the litter, could have easily descended into Lord Of The Flies territory, but I actually find the boys’ reflexive protectiveness far more convincing.
This episode beautifully captures the contradictions of this age, when kids—especially, if not only, those growing up in hard-scrabble environments like inner-city Baltimore—may be exposed to rather adult things well before they're ready. (But then, who's ever “ready” to be an accessory to murder?) Even Randy’s side business, selling junk food he got for a steep discount from some “Koreans,” speaks to these competing forces. He's industrious, savvy, and maybe even a bit of a hustler, but, for now anyway, the most noxious thing he's peddling is high-fructose corn syrup.
One last thing: I also love how subtly the episode ties together the disparate storylines using adolescent imagery, like the tedious slideshow presentations that Noel mentioned, and the references made by both McNulty and Namond to “back-to-school supplies.” My favorite moment is the scene where Carcetti is, essentially, sent to his room like a teenage boy who's just thrown a tantrum at the dinner table. Instead of cold-calling donors, the petulant Carcetti builds paper airplanes, talks baseball stats on the phone, and ogles a pinup he’s hung over a dart board. If only he had a stereo, he could blast some Alice Cooper and really stick it to his
parents campaign staff.
- TV: Okay, let’s talk a bit about the rest of the episode here, since I’m sure everybody in comments will be only too happy to do so. I’ll start: I like the Carcetti campaign (and how little respect anybody on his staff has for him), and that remains one of my favorite storylines on the show. But I also really love the way this series—so famed for its strikingly realistic dialogue—takes its time with just watching people do stuff. Check out the scene where Snoop and Chris leave behind a body in one of the vacants. The show tells us so much about how they operate, without a single word of dialogue. Fantastic stuff.
- MB: This one's really stray, but the Balmer accents in this show are fantastically realistic, hon, especially Marcia Donnelly’s. (Carcetti’s, eh, not so much.) Judging from Susan Duvall’s IMDB page, which is full of John Waters credits, I’m guessing she’s a native, which I find weirdly disappointing. I was hoping she was some kind of Meryl Streep-esque accent savant.
- PDN: Some spoilers for the rest of the series follow: There’s one other thing about this episode that I think is important to mention, though it’s a loaded enough subject that I don’t know how much we can talk about it without threatening to derail this conversation. When The Wire was on the air, it was often said that the high concentration of African American characters was one of the reasons it never achieved commercial success commensurate with its critical reputation. And if this season is the most daring one in the series’ history, it’s partly because it asks you to care about four young black men, of whom one will ultimately become a criminal predator, one a drug addict, and one whose future path isn’t clear, though the show indicates that he isn’t headed anywhere good. This episode originally aired more than five years ago, and right now, there’s a story in the news about a guy in Florida who spotted a kid walking around his neighborhood unarmed, trailed him while calling the cops to complain about this person’s scary existence, got into an altercation with him, and shot him dead. There’s been a fair amount of ink spilled by now in George Zimmerman’s defense, some of it written at a shrill peak of moral outrage, but whatever actually happened between him and Trayvon Martin between the time Zimmerman got out of his car to confront him and the time the police arrived, all the arguments made in support of Zimmerman ultimately seem to be based on the idea that there’s something so intrinsically threatening about the sight of a young black man that, if you see one in a place where you think he shouldn’t be, it’s just a reasonable precaution to put him down. I think it’s brave of The Wire to have dared to base a storyline around the fates of four kids whom many people would find threatening based just on their age, gender, and skin color, and it was doubly brave that it didn’t show all of these kids rising above their environment, as if that were the only way their stories might be worth telling, or the only reason anyone might care about them.
- RM: I’m curious, for those of you that have already see the full season: Of the four boys we follow starting with this episode, whose arc affects you the most? I’m phrasing this in a way to keep said arcs shrouded in secret for those readers that haven’t made it all the way through. I imagine “Dukie” is the easiest answer, but I’d have to go with Michael as my selection.
- PDN: For me, it’s probably Randy, if only because he’s the one the system treats the worst. For a lot of people, being an adolescent means thinking that the odds are stacked against you and people who ought to be helping you are making your life worse because they misunderstand you and are unfairly suspicious of you, and that’s Randy’s storyline in a nutshell. I also feel for the trap Namond is in, torn between an absent father and a mother whose value system is so fucked up that she has disdain for him because he’s not sufficiently ardent about screwing up his life. I love the jailhouse scene between the two of them, where Wee-Bay says proudly that he has it on good authority that his son can be anything he wants to be, and she says bitterly, “‘Cept a soldier!” When Wee-Bay says, “Who would want to be that, who could be anything else”” it’s an amazing moment, because there aren’t many other times in the series when one of the unrepentant, hard-for-life characters reveals a speck of doubt about how he’s spent his life.
- TV: I’ll go with Randy, too, for the reasons Phil so eloquently outlines.Spoilers end. So that’s our thoughts; now, tell us yours, especially in relation to the theme. Does this show reflect your adolescence at all? What does it have to say about that time in someone’s life? Feel free to discuss what came next in the series, but please mark with a spoiler warning, for those who are working their way through this series. And start suggesting shows for the reader’s choice week! We’ll be doing a post where you vote for the reader’s choice pick in early July.
After that: Noel Murray takes us through “Opie The Birdman” from The Andy Griffith Show, which is available on Netflix.